August 27, 2015

Listing Sexual Offenses on University Transcripts Raises Constitutional Questions

When convicted of a sexual assault crime, it should come as no surprise that one of the possible penalties could include being listed as a sexual offender on a public registry. To end up on such a list, a defendant likely had to plead guilty to or be convicted of an offense.

States Starting to Require Transcripts be Noted

But many states are now requiring that universities that have dismissed or expelled students for sexual assault list those students as expelled for a "code of conduct violation" (or other more detailed notations) on their transcripts. Recently, New York state passed such a law, right after Virginia.

Maryland recently tried to enact a similar statute that failed and never became law. The rationale for rejecting it echoes the reason why many people oppose such a law: Doing so creates a kind of sexual offender registry, and doing that would require academic proceedings to contain full-blown constitutional protections the same way the legal system does. Many are concerned that requiring such protections and due process could actually make it more difficult for schools to punish and expel sexual offenders.

Furthermore, the entire system only works based on the idea that the investigations conducted by schools are correct. But most schools simply don't have the time, procedures, or ability, to actually assert whether a sexual assault allegation is true or not. The standard for expelling is often significantly less than what the law would require to convict someone. And, the investigation and hearing procedures for one school may differ vastly from others, making the entire system lack consistency.

Proponents Advocate Protecting Other Students

Proponents claim that marking a transcript this way allows the schools where the expelled student might transfer to know they may be accepting someone with a history of sexual offenses. Schools should know if they are accepting someone who may be a criminal risk to other students, and there is a concern that sexual offenders may simply bounce from school to school.

In fact, an Oregon school was recently sued for recruiting college athletes that were involved in an assault. The suit claims that the school should have known about the athlete's history but because there was no notation on the transcript, the school denies having any such knowledge.

Law Could Make Lawsuits Easier

Schools may see the transcript issue as a mixed bag--on the one hand, requiring expulsions may help schools keep out students they fear will cause trouble. But on the other hand, having the notations there could make the school civilly liable if the student is ultimately accepted and commits another crime, as the school could no longer use lack of knowledge as a defense to a civil suit.

The issue is a controversial one, as these laws risk creating sexual offender lists, without the constitutional protections or uniformity that ordinarily would be expected in such cases.

Sexual offense crimes are serious, and can have long lasting ramifications. Make sure you get top legal advice from attorneys who understand how serious the charges are. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

August 21, 2015

Restoration of Voting Rights Can Have Positive Effect on Convicted Felons

Amid the fight over Maryland's drug laws, the Governor's veto of them, and the fight to overturn that veto, something else was vetoed by the Governor: The right for convicted felons to vote.

The issue is becoming a hot topic nationally. In fact, the Huffington Post recently ran an article studying how states deal with the issue.

Why Allow Felons to Vote?

It may initially seem counterintuitive to allow felons to vote. But proponents have both legal and civil reasons for why it is a good idea.

Legally, the logic is that these individuals have fulfilled their obligations to society by serving their sentences. They have completed most of their punishment and should be able to continue to live as any other citizen would. For some, a sentence can seem lifelong when voting rights are restricted.

There is also a strong argument that the restoration of voting rights prevents recidivism--that is, the return to crime or repeating of past crimes. Disenfranchised, detached citizens are not helpful for society. Individuals who have a voice that is heard by way of the voting booth have a stake in their neighborhoods, feel like meaningful members of society, and thus are less likely to repeat past crimes.

Many people restricted from voting may have completed a prison sentence and have since reassimilated into society, holding down jobs and becoming pillars of their community. But because they are still technically on some level of post-conviction parole, they still have no voting rights.

In many cases, even the victim's families want convicted felons to reform themselves, shape up, and become productive members of society. That often is encouraged by allowing felons to vote.

States Vary in Felon Voting Laws

Almost every state other than Vermont and Maine restrict convicted felons from voting to some degree. Many others have varying levels of restrictions, from preventing those on probation from voting, to prohibiting those who have completed their sentence from voting. Maryland does allow those who have completed their sentence to vote, but not those on probation.

Although 18 states recently considered laws expanding voting rights to some extent, only Wyoming has passed one.

The number of people affected by these laws can be significant. In Florida, for example, approximately 10% of the total voting age population is affected by conviction-related voting restrictions. Florida doesn't even allow those who have completed their sentence to vote--voters must apply five to seven years after completion in order to restore voting rights. Maryland is only at 1.4%. Some states, such as Oregon, Montana or North Dakota, have rates at .5% or below. The national average is 2.5%.

A criminal conviction can have long-lasting ramifications. You need attorneys that can advise you on the consequences of all your options if you are accused of committing a crime. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

August 10, 2015

Can You Be Arrested for DUI if Nobody Sees a Car Being Driven?

The crime of drunk driving (driving under the influence) is one that often involves challenges to an officer's sufficiency of evidence. Was there probable cause for a traffic stop? Was the offender's blood alcohol level was above the legal limit? Was the person arrested for DUI actually driving? That may sound like a strange question, but a recent case raised just that issue.

Officers Find Car Crashed

In a recent case, Baltimore police were called to the scene of a traffic accident. The car was smoking, with fluids spilling out of it, and was still running. By all accounts, the car had been running before jumping the curb and crashing. The defendant was slumped over the wheel, unresponsive and intoxicated.

The defendant finally came to, exited the vehicle, and very wearily, began walking to his home, which was close to the accident. He refused a field sobriety test. Notably, refusal to take a sobriety test can now be used against a Defendant in trial, and the Defendant was convicted.

Was the Defendant Driving?

But was the defendant driving for the purposes of the statute? Nobody had observed him actually driving or the vehicle moving. Is finding a defendant intoxicated behind the wheel of a crashed car enough to infer that the defendant was actually driving while intoxicated?

The appellate court concluded that circumstantial evidence could be used to determine that the defendant had been driving, and in fact, in similar cases, it has been. In cases where officers felt an engine of a stalled car was warm, or where a car was observed overheating, courts have allowed juries to conclude that the defendant had been driving the vehicle even though nobody observed it happening.

Facts Count

There are cases in which the analysis is tougher. In many cases where people are passed out drunk behind the wheels of parked cars, there is no way to know if a defendant had driven drunk and then parked (illegal) or had been drunk and then just want to their parked car and sat there without ever driving it (legal). A person may simply be "sleeping off" intoxication inside a parked car. But in those cases, there was no evidence the car been immediately driven.

This case involved an actual accident, which can't happen unless a car has been driven. The car had been found over a curb and in the bushes--there was no way a car even gets there without being driven first. Thus, the jury was justified in finding the defendant had been driving while intoxicated.

As you can imagine, many of these kinds of cases turn on fine factual details. Juries can consider all reasonable inferences and reasonable doubts. The question often comes down to whether other options are actually reasonable or not, and in this case, there was no other reasonable hypothesis than that the car had been immediately driven while the defendant was intoxicated.

DUI cases can be involved and require extensive investigation of all the facts. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

July 23, 2015

What is a Hate Crime?

With all the talk surrounding the tragic church shooting in South Carolina last month, the news has been reporting often on the topic of hate crimes. We tend to understand what a hate crime is from a layman's perspective, but what is a hate crime in the legal sense, and how does it affect criminal defendants charged with crimes?

What is a Hate Crime?

In common terms, hate crimes are common crimes, even minor ones, which are made more severe if they target a specific protected class of people. This doesn't mean that a crime happens to be perpetrated on a minority or protected class, but rather means that the crime was specifically targeted to a protected group. Usually, these crimes are used to "send messages" to minority groups or to scare larger populations of people.

Hate crimes can transform generally modest or low-severity crimes into very serious offenses. For example, vandalizing a street sign is a crime that many youths often find themselves in trouble for, but rarely does it permanently affect someone's record or prevent one from living a meaningful and productive life. However, if the vandalism says, "We hate (fill in a race or religion)," then the crime becomes a hate crime and is much more severe.

Proving Hate Crimes

With "written" crimes like vandalism or defacing houses of worship, it is often easy to tell if a protected class has been targeted. But sometimes it is not so easy, such as when someone is assaulted on the street. The state often must prove that a person was actually targeted because of their race or religion in order to increase the crime to a hate crime.

This may require getting into the head and intentions of the perpetrator. But sometimes, there is other evidence. In many cases, someone shooting out of hate will unload an entire round of bullets, or take other actions that entail violence beyond an "ordinary" assault or battery.

Hate Crimes and the First Amendment

On the surface, it may seem like hate crimes are a violation of our first amendment right to free speech. After all, as detestable as it is, our constitution does protect someone's right to hate whoever they want to and to speak or write publicly about that hate.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that punishing hate crimes is constitutional because they aren't restricting speech, but merely increasing sentencing for crimes that involve hate towards a protected class. Governments have long had the authority to increase sentencing for certain enhancing factors.

Protected Classes

For simplicity, we have referenced race and religion as "protected classes," but there can be many more classes of people that can be protected by hate crime laws. Maryland protects gender (male/female) and sexual preference, making crimes that target, for example, women or homosexuals, hate crimes. Some states don't have such a broad definition of groups covered by hate crime laws.

The FBI has a full database of hate crime statistics for review, breaking down hate crimes by the offenders, locations, types of crimes, and other data.

If you have questions about an arrest, or are charged with a crime of any kind, the criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

July 16, 2015

Violation of Fifth Amendment Rights Causes Defendant's Conviction to be Overturned

Criminal trials involve loads of evidence, legal argument, expert testimony, and sometimes days of witness testimony. But in many cases, it is a single improper statement that can end up poisoning a trial. When prosecutors use creative language that impinges on a defendant's constitutional rights, a conviction can be overturned, as it was in a recent case.

Statement by Prosecutor at Issue

The case involves a man accused of setting fire to his girlfriend's house. He was captured on video camera, and the police, upon arriving at his home, smelled gasoline. He was arrested, where he gave a written confession, admitting that he had in fact burned down the home.

At trial, during the opening statements, the prosecutor told the jury that they would hear the defendant himself state, in his own words, that he had committed the crime.

In the middle of the trial, the defendant's attorney asked for a mistrial, on the basis that the defendant's fifth amendment right to be free from self-incrimination had been violated by the prosecutor's opening statement. When a defendant does not testify after the jury hears that he will, it could create an adverse impression in their minds. A jury is not allowed to be told or infer anything negative from a defendant's decision to invoke his fifth amendment rights and not testify.

The prosecutor stated that all she said to the jury was that the defendant had signed a confession, which he had.

The judge denied the motion, and the case went to the jury. The prosecutor did get into evidence the written confession, and the defendant never testified. The defendant again objected, stating that the prosecutor's words implied the defendant was going to testify, and if the impression was made to the jury that the defendant was going to take the stand and testify, it was a violation of the defendant's constitutional rights.

Appellate Court Reverses the Conviction

The jury convicted the defendant and an appeal ensued. The question became how the jury interpreted the prosecutor's phrase that the defendant "will tell you." The State again argued that the prosecutor was referring to the confession, not making a statement that the defendant would be testifying at trial, but the appellate court noted that it was not important what the prosecutor meant or intended. All that matters is how what was said is likely to be interpreted by a jury.

Here, the court felt that a jury of laypeople could easily interpret the prosecutor's statements as referring to testimony at trial. Even though the error may have been in using the wrong tense ("will testify" vs. "has testified"), it is still an error, and one that convinces a jury that the defendant will testify, thus violating his fifth amendment rights.

A defendant in that situation then must choose between testifying or not testifying and risking the jury inferring something negative by his not testifying. This kind of "Hobson's Choice" is not allowed in the context of protecting a defendant's constitutional rights.

In-depth understanding of the constitution's protections can win a trial and prevent important rights from being ignored. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

July 2, 2015

Maryland Governor Vetoes Numerous Criminal Reform Bills

We have previously written about a number of proposed reforms to Maryland's criminal justice system, including some that proposed decriminalization of Maryland's marijuana laws. However, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has vetoed a number of these proposals, leaving their future viability in question.

Governor Vetoes Marijuana Laws

One proposal we have written about previously involved the decriminalization of certain marijuana crimes. Specifically, the legislature passed a bill making possession of drug paraphernalia a noncriminal infraction and included a provision making smoking marijuana in public noncriminal as well. In 2014, Maryland passed a law decriminalizing the possession of smaller amounts of marijuana. That law remains in effect. Thus, legislators realized that the laws made no sense because someone could commit a criminal infraction by owning paraphernalia that was being used for a noncriminal amount of marijuana. They sought to make possession of the paraphernalia noncriminal as well, to harmonize the laws.

However, the governor has now vetoed that bill, citing concerns about whether smoking in a vehicle would be a criminal infraction or not. Because that was unclear, law enforcement would be uncertain whether they could make a traffic stop when observing someone smoking while driving, according to Hogan.

Proponents of the measure say that's just not true, and an officer observing someone smoking in their car could still perform a traffic stop. They further argue that if officers can stop spending time on minor drug offenses or tracking down ownership of minor drug paraphernalia, they can spend time on more significant matters and cases that concern immediate public safety.

Voting Rights Also Vetoed

Another bill recently vetoed involved the restoration of voting rights for felons. Although it may not seem like a good idea on the surface, the bill was intended to apply to the nearly 40,000 individuals on probation who are functioning and productive members of society. The bill was also a response to the racial conflicts that have been arising in Maryland criminal courts and in the streets.

The governor vetoed that measure, citing his opinion that such people are still serving a debt to society. Proponents of the bill have said that many of these people needed to be reassimilated into society and provided a say in how their communities are run. Doing so could avoid the public confrontations Baltimore was faced with this year.

Maryland does currently allow ex-convicts to vote, once their sentences are complete.

In many cases, legislators say they have enough votes to override the veto, so some of these measures may not be dead yet.

Defending your rights requires understanding all the current laws. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

June 24, 2015

Maryland's Drug Laws May Be Relaxing Again

Earlier this year, we wrote about Maryland's attempt to lessen penalties for Marijuana possession, including, in some cases, decriminalizing the offense of marijuana possession. A new law is now in the process of easing penalties relating to marijuana even further.

Decriminalization of Marijuana Goes Even Further

In many cases, Maryland has already decriminalized possession of marijuana in small quantities. That doesn't make it necessarily completely legal, it just means that certain charges for possession are more along the lines of civil traffic violations--there are penalties, such as fines, but they don't count as actual criminal charges, and there is no risk of arrest. In some cases, such as with those under the age of 18, drug counseling can be ordered.

Now, the Maryland Senate is attempting to pass a bill to increase the amount of marijuana that would be subject to civil fines, from the current 10 grams, to 20 (after 20 grams, marijuana possession or usage would still be a criminal offense).

The bill also would decriminalize possession of drug paraphernalia, which is generally any otherwise legal item that's being used to carry, store, or use, marijuana. Currently, even though having under 10 grams of marijuana is a non-criminal offense, possession of drug paraphernalia is still a criminal offense.

This is all after Maryland passed a law earlier this year, allowing those with certain prior convictions, including those for marijuana possession that are now non-criminal, to hide the convictions from their records in certain circumstances. It's not an expungement program, but rather it allows people to petition a court to have records hidden after the expiration of three years from the original conviction.

Bill Does Make Some Drug Usage Illegal

But the bill does have a give and take element, making illegal certain aspects of marijuana usage. For example, it would be illegal to smoke marijuana in the car, or in public. In most cases this would be a misdemeanor.

If it sounds like Maryland is trying to regulate marijuana the same way as alcohol is regulated--not in cars, limiting public usage, etc.--that's because this very well may be the case. In fact, earlier this year, a proposal to tax marijuana usage the same way alcohol is taxed was proposed. That proposal has not become law.

As of February, 23 states allow marijuana for medical use, and two (Colorado and Washington) allow it for recreational usage. Alaska and Oregon have passed laws that aren't in effect yet.

Maryland clearly isn't ready to relax its drug laws to that extent, but these recent changes indicate that there is a realization that the prosecution of generally minor drug offenses, is taxing the law enforcement and penal systems, as well as the courts.

Have you been arrested for a drug offense in Maryland? The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the process representing those who are arrested for any kind of drug or narcotic offense. If you or someone you know was arrested in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

June 11, 2015

Murder Case Featured in Popular Podcast May be Re-Opened

Sometimes it seems that crime stories that are told in books, mini-series, and in other entertainment venues, are too strange or bizarre to actually happen in real life. But every now and then, there's a tale that actually does have some basis in actual events. One of them is in fact unfolding in Maryland courts even today.

Murder Featured in "Serial"

"Serial" is a very popular podcast that tells multi-part stories involving actual crime stories. The first season of the podcast featured the story of a man convicted of killing his girlfriend. The episodes were based on events that are actually unfolding in Maryland.

The events surround Hae Min Lee, who went missing in 1999. After her body was discovered in a forest, her boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of murdering her in 2000.

But a friend of Syed's says that she was with him at the time of the murder, providing what would appear to be a strong alibi for Syed. But her account, for reasons unknown, never made it into the murder trial. Syed puts some of the blame on his lawyers, who he contends wrongfully failed to present the witness' information, among making other critical strategic errors during the trial. The witness herself even contends that the prosecution told her not to show up to parts of the post-conviction proceedings.

The Push to Have the Case Re-Opened

Although Syed was convicted fifteen years ago, the witness has said again that she would be willing to testify, and has provided an affidavit recounting the events of the night of the murder, accounts that could, if true, exonerate Syed.

The momentum to relook at the case has been fueled by its being featured in Serial. Many credit the groundswell of anger listeners had over the case, after listening to the podcast, for the attention the case has gotten.

But as you probably know from TV and movies, it's not so easy to re-open a conviction, even where new evidence appears. Syed has overcome the crucial first step, however, as a Maryland appellate court has given approval for him to at least ask the lower court to reopen the case.

By doing so, the lower court could allow Syed to submit the affidavit into the court record, or even to have the witness testify, as she has said she'd be willing to do. Then, Syed would be able to petition the appeals court to determine if the entire case should be re-tried or whether he should be exonerated completely based on the new information.

If the case is re-opened, Syed doesn't have to prove his innocence. He only has to prove that with the witness' testimony he would not be likely to be a suspect beyond a reasonable doubt. The lower court is expected to rule in the next few weeks.

Obtaining and using all the available evidence can be a crucial part of a criminal trial. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

May 27, 2015

Supreme Court Considers Search and Seizure Dog Sniff Case

We've discussed cases in the past dealing with the police's right to search or seize your property, and how there must be probable cause for such a stop. The United States Supreme Court has recently decided a case (Rodriguez v. United States) that sets limits on the police's right to search and seize people who they have detained, and it could have an impact on how police deal with individuals at traffic stops nationwide.

Police K-9 Sniffs Vehicle at Stop

The facts of the case are reasonably simple. A man was stopped by an officer for a traffic infraction. He was written a citation. The officer asked if his K-9 could sniff the vehicle. The defendant refused. So, the officer instructed him to exit the vehicle, called backup, and had his dog sniff the car anyway. The dog detected drugs, and the defendant was eventually arrested and convicted of drug possession.

The defendant argued that the sniff by the dog was an illegal detention, search and seizure and that the evidence against him should have been suppressed. After numerous appeals, the matter made its way to the United States Supreme Court.

The Constitution and Dog Sniffs

A dog sniff is reasonable and constitutional when it complies with the fourth amendment. But the defendant argued that the sniff here was beyond the scope of why the defendant was stopped, and that the defendant was purposely detained longer than needed, just to allow the dog to sniff.

Of course, an officer can detain someone at a traffic stop that is suspected of a traffic infraction. But the United States Supreme Court noted that in such cases, the traffic stop must last only as long as is needed, and then must end absent additional reasonable articulable suspicion or probable cause to detain the driver. Ordinarily, any additional matters the officer inquires into must be traffic related.

There must be independent, continuing reasonable suspicion to continue to detain someone after the purpose of the stop has been met. Otherwise, although an officer may inquire as to other matters at a traffic stop, he may not unreasonably prolong the stop for matters unrelated to the reason the vehicle was stopped in the first place. However, short delays, such as those that are necessary for the officer's safety (like requiring someone to exit a vehicle), are acceptable delays that can be taken at a traffic stop.

A police K-9 dog sniff is certainly intended to uncover information that goes beyond just traffic and traffic infractions. And the Court stated that an officer can't implement a dog sniff just because he has completed the traffic-related duties quickly. Here, the dog sniff occurred after the traffic citation was issued, making it questionable whether it was legal.

But the Supreme Court didn't make any final pronouncement on the case, as a lower appellate court hadn't considered the matter of whether there was, in fact, reasonable suspicion to detain the defendant after the traffic-related activities had been completed. Thus, the U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case for that consideration.

Have you been arrested in Maryland? You want attorneys that understand what the police can and can't do. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the process representing those who are arrested. If you or someone you know was arrested in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

May 15, 2015

Maryland Wrestles With Rights of Defendants At Bail Hearings

The Maryland General Assembly is considering new laws that may affect the rights of criminal defendants. Some legislators apparently believe that when an accused is charged with a crime, if it's too expensive to provide them an attorney, the way to solve the problem and save money is to strip their rights to an attorney.

The Controversy Over Rights to an Attorney

The issue relates to an accused's right to an attorney at a bail, or bond hearing. The U.S. Constitution doesn't explicitly require an attorney be provided to a criminal defendant who can't afford their own lawyer at bail hearings, the way it does for actual trials. Neither does the Maryland constitution provide that right explicitly.

A Maryland case recently required that an attorney be provided to defendants at the bail stage, under the Maryland constitution.

Bail hearings in Maryland are usually first held before court commissioners. When legislators tried to legislate away the right to an attorney when appearing before these commissioners, the Maryland Court of Appeals overruled that measure, saying defendants are entitled to an attorney at all stages of a proceeding, no matter if before a commissioner or a judge.

The Problem of Cost

The problem came in implementing the court's decision. Using state-paid public defenders was too expensive to provide the service, especially for as many bail hearings that take place after normal business hours. So, Maryland contracts out private lawyers, at hourly rates, to provide counsel at the bail stage.

But that solution is costing the state too much money, according to some lawmakers.

One idea to address the cost was to allow police officers to issue citations for many offenses, as opposed to taking defendants into custody, in order to reduce the number of bail hearings that need to be conducted. That bill failed.

Now some legislators are simply proposing a quick and easy way of solving the problem--just strip defendants of their right to an attorney at the bail stage completely by passing a new law, or amending the Maryland constitution. But many legislators are not supporting that drastic of a measure.

Both Sides Make Arguments

Proponents of the measure point out that 64 percent of criminal defendants waive their right to an attorney at bond hearings anyway. Thus, stripping them of the right to an attorney wouldn't have as drastic of an effect as people may believe.

Critics of changing the law point out that although providing counsel is costly, the state is not in an economic crisis, and can afford the expense. Critics also point out that when there is an increased cost to detaining defendants, the state and police departments may be more discerning and exacting in making sure they are only arresting and detaining those who need to be.

Have you been charged with a crime of any kind in Maryland? The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the process representing those who are arrested. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

April 27, 2015

Federal Agents Indicted in Baltimore For Alleged Bitcoin Investigation Fraud

Television episodes of good cops who go bad, or police officers who skim money from the investigations they are conducting, are common, and perhaps even cliché. But federal agents in Baltimore are under investigation for doing just that, while conducting one of the most publicized criminal investigations in recent memory.

The Investigation into the Agent's Activities

Two DEA agents were involved in the investigation of "Silk Road," a marketplace that sold drugs online, mainly through the use of bitcoins, an online currency that, because it's anonymous, tends to lend itself to being the currency of choice in less savory endeavors. Bitcoins are not regulated by federal banks. Although at one time it was generating $200 million in revenue, Silk Road is defunct today.

The agents charged with these crimes in fact helped obtain indictments against Silk Road founders and officials. But now, they are charged with wiring themselves $800,000 of bitcoins, and with trying to extort Silk Road administrators. In fact, one of the officers is alleged to have been involved in a theft that led to a charge of murder-for-hire against Silk Road's founder.

There is also some concern that the alleged misdeeds by these agents could jeopardize the ability to obtain convictions on the charges against Silk Road founders.

Like a movie, the allegations state that the agents told Silk Road that they had inside government information, which would be useful to Silk Road's owners, but that it would cost money for them to give it up. In one instance, they apprehended a Silk Road administrator, who allegedly informed the agents how to access Silk Road accounts. Mysteriously, thousands of bitcoin dollars disappeared from the accounts soon afterward. The agents then pretended to kill the informant in return for a bounty, which was paid by the Silk Road founder.

One agent is even charged with starting his own online currency investment company, using his position to seize digital currency of others, and then transferring their funds into his accounts under the auspice of legal authority.

Plans May Have Put Funds in Agents' Own Pockets

These plans were never authorized by the agent's respective departments--they are alleged to have done that on their own, and then pocketed the money when Silk Road's owners paid them. They were discovered when the agent's official records, which are filed in every police investigation, contained gaps and holes in information.

The agents were arrested and charged with wire fraud and money laundering. The case highlights the difficulties and technological challenges in today's crime scene. With anonymity and use of underground online marketplaces, criminals can often come and go at ease. Officers are being trained to properly investigate these crimes, but like the real world, the allure of money can be a huge influence on investigating agencies.

Are you charged with a crime of any kind in Maryland? The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience with all areas of criminal law and can help you if you're charged or arrested. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

March 31, 2015

New Case Limits Cell Phone Records "Expert" Testimony

Expert witnesses receive a lot of attention in the media and in TV shows. As such, the public is often familiar with the importance that expert witnesses play. But most people never give thought to the question of who can be an expert witness. Surprisingly, expert witnesses aren't always high level doctors, scientists, or professors. And the question of who can be an expert witness can often make or break a case.

Officer Testifies as an Expert in Recent Case

In 2007, officers discovered human remains on fire. Through the course of their murder investigation, the police obtained cell phone records of certain people. The cell phone records eventually aided the police investigation, which ultimately lead to the arrest of the defendants, Joseph Payne and Jason Bond.

The phone records were thousands of pages. As part of the investigation, the officer narrowed calls by time frame, which calls the officer considered pertinent, and which calls were relevant based upon cell tower ID numbers. The officer said he could tell by the cell record which calls were inbound or outbound, and when each call was made.

The officer said he then matched cell phone data points with a map on a website to get the exact longitude and latitude of each call. This way, he could track which of the defendant's cell calls bounced off which cell tower, and pinpoint his location.

The State used this information to argue to the jury that the defendant was in the correct location to have committed the murders. The defendant's attorney objected to the officer's testimony regarding the cell phone records, stating that the officer was not qualified to testify as an expert witness on the cell phone records. But the officer's testimony was admitted, and the jury convicted the defendants of first-degree murder and kidnapping.

Appeal Narrows Definition of Expert Testimony

The defendants appealed the conviction, contending that the officer was not an expert witness qualified to interpret the cell phone records, and thus couldn't render the expert testimony regarding the cell records and their significance related to the murder.

Normally, a non-expert is limited in what kind of opinions can be provided at trial. A non-expert's testimony can generally only be based on the witness' perception. For example, a regular witness could say a car he observed was going "fast," if he saw it, but could not render an opinion that a car was going "100 mph," an exact figure that would take data, scientific knowledge, and calculations to make.

The state argued to the appellate court that the officer wasn't actually providing any expert testimony; he was just reading from cell records or maps. But the appellate court disagreed, finding that the officer engaged in a process, and gave testimony, that was beyond the ordinary and common knowledge of a non-expert.

The records the officer relied upon were not the normal cell records that a regular individual ordinarily gets in the mail. The data extracted from them wasn't normally available to a regular individual who wasn't trained to interpret it. Thus, the court believed that call detail records contain information not decipherable by a non-expert. Rather, doing so requires requisite experience, skill or knowledge.

Thus, the officer was required to have been qualified as an expert witness by the judge. The conviction was overturned, and the case sent back to the trial court for a new trial.

Evidence issues can be the difference between guilty and not guilty. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience with all evidentiary issues that arise in criminal trial law. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

March 18, 2015

Seizure of Narcotics Raises Fourth Amendment Issues

Searches and seizures of property are protected by our Fourth Amendment due process rights. Courts often have to wrestle with real-world situations to see if officers have respected defendants' constitutional rights when contraband is taken during the course of an arrest. A recent case provides more powers for officers to seize property that is in open view to them.

Drug Seizure in Entryway

The case involves a detective in plain clothes who received a report of possible drug activity. The officer went to the scene, and from far away with binoculars observed the suspect go back and forth from his home, handing objects to people in exchange for cash. Based on this, the officer surmised that there was drug dealing taking place.

When the suspect was approach by officers outside his residence, he stomped on some objects, but could not destroy a vial of cocaine. The officers proceeded to the house, where only an unlocked glass storm door was closed. Looking inside the entryway behind the storm door, but in front of the closed main front door, the officer saw more drugs. They entered through the unlocked glass door and seized the drugs.

At trial for drug possession and distribution charges, the state tried to bring forth numerous incidences of prior drug offenses for which the defendant had been convicted. The defendant moved to suppress that evidence. The motion was denied, and the defendant was subsequently convicted.

Appeal Raises Fourth Amendment Issues

The defendant appealed, claiming that the evidence of prior convictions should not have been admitted, but also claiming that the entire initial search and seizure of his property was illegal because the officer opened the storm door with no warrant and no emergency situation existing to get them.

The appellate court clarified that when an officer is lawfully inside property, he may seize items that are in plain view. But if an officer is not lawfully inside property, and sees contraband inside, the court agreed that an officer does not have the right to walk into the private property and seize the items. The officer must usually get a warrant.

However, there is an exception to the need for a warrant where "exigent circumstances" exist, which may include the risk that evidence will be lost or destroyed.

The court upheld the officer's right to simply look through the storm door, calling it a valid visual observation that would have provided probable cause for a warrant had one been sought. First, the court felt the officer was lawfully on the property, having entered an unlocked and see-through storm door. The court also believed that had the officer gone back for a warrant, the illegal drugs would likely have been moved or disposed of, and thus, the officer had the exigent circumstances necessary to enter the area. In fact, the defendant had already destroyed some evidence when he stomped on items in front of the officers.

Prior Conviction Evidence

The court also found no error in allowing the prior convictions as evidence. To admit prior drug convictions, the court must consider:

1. the value of the prior crime evidence to the state;
2. how old the prior convictions are;
3. how similar the prior convictions are to the current one; and
4. whether the defendant's credibility is an issue in the case.

In this case, the prior convictions were for dealing narcotics, making them sufficiently similar. Because the defendant's testimony at trial contradicted that of the state, his credibility was at issue, which made credibility impeachment evidence important enough to be used by the state.

The appellate court therefore upheld the conviction entered by the jury at the trial.

If you are arrested, there may be complex constitutional issues that your attorney should understand to give you the best defense possible. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience protecting the rights of criminal defendants. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

March 10, 2015

Technology Doesn't Prevent Man From Conviction Despite GPS Saying He's Innocent

We've often talked about the interplay between technology and our courts, as well as our constitutional rights. But a new case involving a Maryland criminal conviction is a sobering reminder that although technology can sometimes exonerate accused defendants, it's not always completely reliable in the eyes of a jury.

Man Convicted Despite GPS Evidence

In 2009, a Maryland girl was shot and paralyzed. Convicted of the crime was a man named Lamont Davis. What makes the case extraordinary is that Davis had a GPS tracking device on him at the time as a requirement of a prior condition of probation, and that GPS device didn't show him at the scene of the crime when it happened. It showed him as being at home.

So how was he convicted? According to the article in the Trentonian, his attorneys admitted to making missteps. One of those mistakes was agreeing that the GPS had inaccurately showed Davis' location over 100 times in the past, possibly leading to doubt in the jurors minds as to the accuracy of what the GPS said on the date of the murder.

Police said the GPS taped on a 2-hour delay, meaning he could have been at the scene of the crime when it happened.

But Davis now has some powerful allies, arguing his conviction should be overturned. GPS experts as well as the head of Juvenile Services, the agency that issued and monitored the tracking device, say that the device was accurate, and that Davis couldn't have been at the shooting.

Even an expert reviewing surveillance footage has said Davis is innocent, demonstrating that the shooter in the grainy video was not wearing an ankle tracking device, as Davis would have been at the time. An agent from Juvenile Justice says that the ankle tracking device would have been impossible for Davis to just slip off.

The prosecutors' office has said it's now reviewing the case. But most agree that Davis' conviction was a miscarriage of justice.

Lessons From the Case

It's possible that the emotion of the crime, which involved a five year old and had media publicity, fueled the desire to just convict, and Davis was a convenient target. Davis' girlfriend was involved in the altercation that lead to the shooting, again making Davis an easy target.

We tend to think of technology as infallible. DNA evidence, video cameras, and GPS tracking would seem to distinctly tell a jury who committed what crime and when. But this case illustrates that evidence at trial is about more than technology. It's about lawyering, and trying to control or interpret what a jury sees and understands. It's also about the emotion a jury often feels.

Technology can be a powerful tool in helping to acquit an accused defendant. But only in the hands of the right lawyer.

Make sure your attorneys understand technology and how to use evidence to give you the best defense possible. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience protecting the rights of criminal defendants. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.

February 24, 2015

When Do You Have a Right to Defend Others From Attack?

When we think of self-defense as a defense to a criminal charge, we often think in terms of defending ourselves. And although the laws vary a bit from state to state, generally, there is always a right to reasonably defend yourself from injury. But we don't often give thought to whether we're allowed to defend others. Most states including Maryland do recognize this right, but there are certain requirements that must be met at trial to ensure the defense is successful.

The right of defense of others in Maryland means that you have a right to take reasonable steps to defend someone else who may be a victim of harm. But there are certain requirements that must be met for the defense to be successful.

The person aiding the victim must reasonably believe that the victim is in danger, and that the victim would have a right to defend himself if he could.

The term "reasonably believes" means that a jury will determine whether the belief is reasonable. In many ways, this is no different than the standard of defending yourself--except that instead of a first person account ("this is what was happening to me"), you're left to rely on a third-person account ("this is what I saw happening to her").

As an example, if your mother were 100 yard away from someone with a knife, and you shot the person with the knife, it may not be reasonable to believe your mother was in danger, as 100 yards is a football field. Put the assailant 10 feet from your mother, and now your belief may be reasonable.

The person aiding must use reasonable and necessary force

Again, this is a standard that will be determined by a jury. If an old man is hitting your mother with an umbrella, shooting him may be unreasonable, if you could have easily wrested the umbrella away from the old man. If a 25-year-old bodybuilder is slamming that umbrella into her, and you are a smaller-framed or older individual, then more drastic force may be reasonable to stop the assault.

You'll note that there is no requirement that the person you are protecting be a friend or family member. You may act reasonably to protect anyone.

Be Aware of Risks in Defending Others

Believe it or not, it is possible that you, as a person coming to the aid of another, could be sued civilly, even if you are not convicted of any crime. In other words, just because the criminal laws say you were entitled to defend the other person doesn't mean the attacker couldn't sue you civilly. (So-called "Good Samaritan Laws" usually insulate you from liability from the person you are helping--not from the person you may be attacking to protect a victim).

And, of course, it goes without saying, that you should always be careful when coming to the defense of others. It's a tough balance between standing up and protecting someone in danger, and putting yourself in danger.

A good defense to a criminal charge requires understanding all the evidence and facts. The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience protecting the rights of criminal defendants. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.